FOCUS ON FIRE
IN THE FOREST
FUNCTION OF FIRE
A GRASP ON SMOKE
BEYOND THE BLAZES
Monitoring Hotshots and hot air
By Chad Dundas
Local Hotshot crews conduct prescribed, controlled burns to lessen the risk of major summer wildland fires each fall and spring. UM researchers Curtis Noonan and Tony Ward will monitor the crews during these burns to study how working in the smoke and pollution of forest fires affects firefighters’ health.
“Basically we’re interested in assessing their exposure to the smoke,” Ward says. “Those guys are in it when they’re doing their controlled burns. We’re really interested in how much smoke they’re exposed to in a wildfire event.”
The problem is that springtime conditions have to be ideal in order for Hotshots to do the early-season controlled burn that Ward and Noonan need for their study. Once the science gets rolling (next year, hopefully), Noonan and Ward will outfit the Hotshots with small personal monitors that will sample exactly what the firefighters are breathing.
“We’re going to hang little pumps on them that collect airborne particulate matter,” Ward says. “It collects an air sample from where they’re breathing. The idea is to get an exact replicate of how much smoke they breathe in a work shift, how much smoke they’re exposed to, and then correlate that to how much smoke they’re breathing during a forest fire event.”
Ward, an assistant research professor, and Noonan, an assistant professor of epidemiology, both work in UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences. They will analyze data from the personal monitors along with a team of industrial hygienists from Montana Tech. They’ll also determine what the firefighters are breathing and whether the health risks of being a Hotshot are greater or less than expected.
“(We’re also looking for) biological markers in your body that show that you’re struggling to deal with the particulate matter that you’re breathing in,” Ward says. “Of course, the more you breathe in, the harder your body’s working, the more these markers are present.”
Ward says the scientists are anxious to get started, because they hope this project can lead to a deeper study on the health effects of fighting forest fires.
“This is the first step,” Ward says. “Ultimately we’d like to go into the fire camps and do some monitoring. Hopefully we’ll get in to a more severe, real application during a forest fire and collect samples from those guys out there.”